Bassist Ricky Phillips Finds His Voice With Styx
Bassist Ricky Phillips joined the band Styx in 2003. He says that coming into what many see as a simple pop band changed his playing and made him a better musician. KMUW's Jedd Beaudoin recently spoke with Phillips and has more.
Ricky Phillips began his recording career in the early 1980s with The Babys. The group flirted with major commercial success during its short life and spent a good deal of time on the road with the likes of Cheap Trick. Occasionally, Phillips would run into members of Styx.
Through the years, including the time he spent with Bad English, Phillips maintained those friendships and, in 2003, he received a call from Styx guitarist and vocalist Tommy Shaw. The pair chatted and Shaw suggested that the band would be happy to hire Phillips as bassist and guitarist without audition. But, he added, they couldn’t do that. If Phillips was going to be in the band, he had to prove himself in one more way.
“Tommy said, ‘We have to get into a room and sing. This has to sound like Styx,’” Phillips recalls. “As much singing as I’ve done over the years, I’ve learned that a group of guys will sound completely different when you take out one person and put another one in.”
Phillips was lucky, he says, that he and Styx co-founder and guitarist James “JY” Young have similar tones.
“[He] has a big, booming voice, which I don’t have, but we have this common resonance that lends itself to the Styx harmonies,” Phillips says.
Phillips was a seasoned pro by the time he came to the Styx camp, having played with the short-lived Coverdale/Page project as well as work with Toto’s Fergie Fredricksen and a stint with Ted Nugent. What he didn’t expect was the education he got when he joined his current band.
“Those guys have made me three times the singer that I ever was,” he says. “For 20 minutes before we go out every night we stand face-to-face and sing and work on our vocal blend so that when we got out there we’re not thinking about it. We warm up on our instruments, we warm up on our voices. Back in the day when Tiger Woods owned the golf world he didn’t just jump out of his golf cart and run to the first tee with a golf club in his hand. He was there for a couple of hours working on his game. That’s what I think a true musician does, too.”
Joining Styx also gave Phillips the thing that all musicians want: a steady gig.
“You just want to get a break,” he says, “wherever it comes.”
"Those guys have made me three times the singer that I ever was."
In addition to his stints with The Babys and Bad English, he tried several times to get other projects off the ground. Each of those were mooted by the fickle trends of the music industry.
“I put together a few things that I think might have been the best things I’ve ever done. But sometimes you overshoot the room. I had times where I had the best L.A. had to offer and think it was a slam dunk. I’d play it for record companies and they’d say it was a little too high brow,” Phillips recalls. “They’d say, ‘Wow, this is great. But we’re not going to sign you.’”
In retrospect, he says he’s not surprised given that most of the projects he put together seemed incapable of writing hit singles.
“I’ve always been influenced by bands like Yes, things like that,” he says.
In fact, in 2011 Styx and Yes joined forces four a summer tour that gave Phillips a chance to interact with one of his heroes, Yes founder and bassist Chris Squire.
“Chris was a huge influence on me,” Phillips says. “He had these ideas about tones that were just fantastic, more aggressive than what most players were doing. But not distorted aggressive. He used chorusing and guitar amps along with bass amps.”
One day, the two lunched with Yes drummer Alan White when Squire said asked Phillips about his own playing. “That was really flattering to know that he was interested in what I was doing. I’ve definitely had some pinch-me moments where I’ll be having a conversation with one of my heroes and go back to that 17-year-old kid that was spinning the vinyl on my brother’s record player.”
As a lover of progressive rock, Phillips says that tapping into the Styx discography allowed him to find some more adventurous turns than he expected. He points to “Fooling Yourself (Angry Young Man)” from Styx’s 1978 album "Grand Illusion."
“I think there’s three different time signatures in that song,” he says. “It comes off as this appealing, nice story, nice melody, great harmonies thing. Then there’s this spacy section in the middle that is very proggy and out there. Then it comes back in with this big chorus that takes it out. I don’t know what planet Tommy Shaw was on when he wrote that but it’s one of the coolest pieces of music.”
He adds that he’s very fond of Shaw and Young’s approach to guitar.
“I’ve never seen them sit down and work anything out,” he says. “It’s just a seamless blend. It’s how they sound when they play together.”
Phillips gets a little time to play guitar in Styx sets when original bassist Chuck Panozzo comes to the stage for a few songs.
Panozzo, who announced in 2001 that he was living with HIV, is one of the three members from the group’s peak-era lineup, alongside Young and Shaw. But, like Phillips, the other members have been in place for some time. Drummer Todd Sucherman has logged two decades with the band while vocalist and keyboardist Lawrence Gowan lags just slightly behind. The one member who is not present is co-founder Dennis DeYoung, whose third exit from Styx in 1999 was most likely his last. DeYoung wrote several critical tunes in the band’s output, including “Lady” and “Babe,” the latter become a chart-topping single for the group in 1979.
“Babe” and DeYoung’s proclivity for lighter fare drove a wedge between he and the rest of the band, particularly Young and Shaw who favored louder, more rock-oriented fare. It’s little surprise, then, that Styx doesn’t perform “Babe” or several other DeYoung signature songs in its current live shows. Phillips says that the absence of those pieces hasn’t mattered.
“I don’t hear any complaints,” he says. “Maybe when I first joined there were questions about why we didn’t do certain material but now I think most people come and feel like they didn’t miss anything.”
In addition to his work with Styx, Phillips also recently completed a project with the final recordings of legendary guitarist Ronnie Montrose. Montrose’s career included stints with the Edgar Winter Group, Boz Scaggs and Van Morrison. He was at ease in a variety of styles including jazz fusion, though he’s perhaps best remembered for the band that bore his surname as its moniker and produced a legendary 1973 self-titled album featured Sammy Hagar on vocals.
The record was produced by Ted Templeman, who would become the in-house producer for Van Halen just a few years later. Like Montrose, Van Halen was signed to Warner Bros. Records and, like Montrose, Sammy Hagar would eventually serve as vocalist for the band.
Phillips had been playing Montrose, performing material from the original band’s catalogue. KISS drummer Eric Singer joined in along with a variety of vocalists.
“Ronnie really enjoyed that,” Phillips says.
He wanted to go into the studio and make a record before he lost Singer and Phillips to commitments with their respective bands. The record would features 10 songs with 10 different singers and be called "10 x 10."
Most of the music happened spontaneously with few discussions about direction or form.
“I’ve edited very, very little of what we did, but I’ve tried to keep everything as it was," Phillips says. "It’s very fresh, spontaneous.”
The guitar parts were all but finished when Montrose died. He’d left one critical element unfinished: the guitar solos. Phillips brought in legendary studio guitarist Rick Derringer on a track featuring Edgar Winter on saxophone and vocals; Hagar appears on a piece with Toto guitarist Steve Lukather. San Francisco Bay Area veterans Eric Martin (Mr. Big) and Dave Meniketti (Y&T) appear on another. The record is expected to be release in January.
“We want to get it out there at the right time to make sure it gets the attention it deserves,” Phillips says.
As for the current tour, which sees Styx performing four and sometimes five nights a week, Phillips says it demands that the band members take care of their voices.
“We’ve cut back on the meet and greets and try not to do things that will mess too much with our systems,” he says. “After this conversation, I’m not going to talk for about four hours.”
Styx performs at the Orpheum Theatre this evening, June 28.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.
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